Two Female Leaders: Estonia’s Latest Innovation?

by Margherita Concina
25 Mar, 2021
Picture from Prime Minister Kallas' Instagram account

In the past twenty years, Estonia has reinvented itself from Soviet State to major trailblazer in digital innovation. But as in several European nations, the country’s politics has recently seen a rise in populist rhetoric. The election of not one, but two female leaders has been hailed as a return to progressivism

Two women leading a country: rare, but not impossible. 

Bronze medal for Estonia – after Sri Lanka and Finland, it has become the third country in the world to elect two women for the top leadership positions. President Kersti Kaljulaid has been Head of State since 2016, while Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is entering her second month as Head of Government. Both are the first women to hold their respective offices.

The formerly Soviet country has long been a beacon of innovation, and this dual female leadership has the potential to take the nation even further ahead. The election has been interpreted as a major conquest in Estonia’s battle against extremism and corruption: Kallas replaces Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, who resigned after a corruption scandal. Prime Minister Ratas had been described as flirting with right-wing ideology, and under his watch, cabinet members were responsible for frankly embarrassing behavior. Perhaps most famously, interior minister Mart Helme caused an uproar by calling Finland’s Prime Minister a “sales girl”.

Kallas, on the other hand, has brought in several women in her cabinet, assigning them key ministries from Finance to Foreign Affairs. She brings to the table decades-long parliamentary experience, both on a national level and in the EU Parliament. She also has an impressive family legacy on her side: her grandfather contributed to founding the Republic of Estonia in 1918, while her father Sim Kallas is remembered as one of Estonia’s most popular Prime Ministers. From the looks of recent polls, Kaja’s own popularity rivals that of her male ancestors.

Meanwhile, Kaljulaid’s leadership style has been far from timid. The country’s youngest ever president, she openly positions herself against her coalition partner EKRE, which associates with populist far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen. The party has often sparked controversy for misogynistic, xenophobic and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks, which President Kaljulaid is always quick to criticize. When the EKRE members of government were sworn in, she refused to attend the ceremony, leaving a conspicuous empty chair for them to salute.

Estonia’s milestone certainly comes at a critical time – and perhaps it’s no coincidence. When Theresa May resigned after years of botched Brexit negotiations, she was pinned as the sole culprit in the whole mess, which she inherited at least in part from her predecessor David Cameron. “Theresa May is the worst Prime Minister this country has ever had,” said one anti-May protester to Forbes. “I think she is so bad because she does not have any children.”

In analyzing May’s performance, Forbes highlighted the double standards that plague women in leadership positions, making them more vulnerable to criticism than their male peers. Even the notoriously anti-Brexit Guardian offered May a (short) olive branch, and made a crucial observation: women are more likely to assume top leadership positions in precarious situations, where fewer male candidates are willing to step up for the role. In other words, women in power are often set up to fail. Have Kallas and Kaljulaid broken the glass ceiling, or are they standing at the edge of a glass cliff?

But if any nation can weather the COVID storm, it’s Estonia. For one thing, they are uniquely equipped to promote a digital economy. Ever since its 1997 “Tiger Leap”, the small Baltic country has pioneered Wi-Fi infrastructure and digital technology, which has made it a prime ecosystem for tech unicorns like Skype. Estonian society has adapted to technology in exceptional ways: citizens can vote online from around the world, and digital learning has been in the works for years. This put questions of data protection and cybersecurity on the forefront of policy discussions early on, giving the government an edge in dealing with these problems. But Estonia’s COVID cases are rising exponentially, and by mid-March the country had the highest infection rate in the world. Furthermore, its neighbor Russia has raised increasing international concerns about its foreign policy, from reportedly attempting to infiltrate the US to recent sanctions following the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.

So even as we celebrate Kallas and Kaljulaid’s historic achievement, it will be interesting to observe how their joint leadership will unfold. The President is known for her outspokenness, while the Prime Minister is expected to replace EKRA’s brashness with a centrist approach. How will their leadership styles blend together? And in the midst of unprecedented challenges, can a two-woman leadership withstand the extra scrutiny? Only time will tell how the duo will respond to these challenges. They say that when the going gets tough, a woman has to step up and take the lead. When it gets extremely tough, it takes two of them.



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